School Committee members unanimously approved Superintendent Julie Hackett’s recommended Fiscal Year 2024 school budget in a 5-0 vote at their meeting on Tuesday.
The approval is the latest development in a challenging FY24 budget season where both municipal and school leaders faced shortfalls between their initial proposed budgets and revenue allocations. Hackett has said that increased special education costs and pandemic effects have exacerbated school budgetary pressures this year.
Municipal and school leaders reached an agreement on a proposed Town budget that addresses those shortfalls a few weeks ago. The proposed budget includes a plan to establish an additional Special Education Stabilization Fund to support growing LPS special education costs and needs in the next fiscal year. Within this budget, the Town continues to adhere to its long-term fiscal strategy of setting aside some funds for a new or renovated high school that is projected to cost hundreds of millions, even with a hoped-for partial state reimbursement.
Many teachers have criticized the FY24 budget as the Lexington Education Association continues to negotiate a new contract with the School Committee. At the School Committee’s most recent budget public hearing two weeks ago, more than 20 educators spoke in public comments asking the School Committee to make changes to the budget as they advocate for increased compensation, some decreased student case loads and retaining weekly elementary half-days instead of shifting to a full five-day schedule in order to establish an elementary world language program. Following that hearing, Hackett wrote in an email to LexObserver that “no further adjustments are being made to the FY24 budget,” as previously reported.
At the Town’s fourth financial summit last week, Hackett emphasized to municipal leaders that “this was a very challenging budget,” and that the school budget “addresses the basic needs that we have without adding more to address the pandemic situation.” She added that due to the magnitude of pandemic challenges for education nationwide, budget challenges are unlikely to recede in future years. “Every penny is going to count moving forward.”
Before and after Tuesday’s School Committee budget vote, several educators raised the same concerns voiced in recent School Committee meetings in the context of ongoing contract negotiations, which began last March.
Instead of asking the School Committee to vote down its recommended budget, Andre Verner, a Lexington High School math teacher, asked the committee, parents and community members to lobby the Select Board to release some Town savings to alleviate pressure on teachers. “Morale at LHS is the lowest I’ve seen in my 20 years of teaching here,” he said. “Teachers are burned out and desperate – we have been asked to do more and more every year….there is no way that we can continue to maintain the level of services that we are currently providing unless something changes.”
Verner was among a few educators who also appealed directly to the Select Board at its meeting on Monday. LEA President Avon Lewis criticized municipal leaders as well for excessive fiscal restraint in prioritizing saving for capital projects such as the new or renovated high school. “Shiny buildings are nothing without the people who work in them,” she said on Monday.
In response to a question from LexObserver about whether the LEA was considering a strike, Lewis responded, “we believe in the collective bargaining process and remain committed to it.” (Educator strikes are prohibited under Massachusetts law and can result in expensive union fines, but strikes have still taken place in a few different communities statewide in the past few months.)
Lewis added that educators want a contract that provides “fair and competitive wages and benefits…workloads that are manageable and allow us to do our best work with our students, your children…[and] respect for educator voices in the decision-making process.”
At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, multiple educators stressed that they consistently work far more than the contractual hours referenced in a previous School Committee update on the status of the contract negotiations. The update stated that “teachers are contracted to work 184 days per year and approximately 7.5 hours per day.”
Taylor Casey, an eighth grade English teacher at Diamond Middle School, said she was motivated to respond publicly to the School Committee’s community letter. Of the contractual hours, she said, “yes, this is true – this is the job that I signed up for. Yet I do not know a single educator who works 184 days, 7.5 hours a day.”
One of the School Committee’s two student representatives, LHS senior Aditi Swamy, also spoke up in support of educators on Tuesday. “As I walk in the halls during the day, I always overhear students talking about how stressed and overworked their teachers seem to be,” she said. “As the people we look up to every day, this is incredibly disheartening to witness.”
Swamy mentioned that her math teacher had allowed her to stay an hour after school the previous Friday to get support before a test, while a teacher who advises one of her clubs stays until 5 p.m. every Wednesday on top of showing up for weekend competitions and practices. “These are just a few examples of how the staff in this district go above and beyond for their students, and they deserve to be treated in a way that reflects how much they care,” Swamy said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, School Committee Chair Sara Cuthbertson read another School Committee update circulated to the community on Wednesday sharing additional information about the status of contract negotiations. These lengthy public updates on the contract negotiation status are an unusual step by the School Committee in response to the many community questions sustained educator advocacy has generated.
“We continue to meet regularly with our teachers to reach agreement with respect to a successor contract,” School Committee members wrote. “We have had great discussions and some agreements on paths moving forward…There are still a lot of areas that the parties are far apart on; as such, we do not have a clear timeline of when these negotiations will conclude.”
The School Committee’s latest communication suggested that plans for the implementation of a new elementary world language program next year are not set in stone. In the fall of 2021, the School Committee approved Hackett’s proposal to use pandemic relief funds to reestablish an elementary world language program. In response to educator concerns about losing valuable collaboration and planning time with the elimination of weekly half-days to fit the program into the school week, Hackett has maintained that the program would benefit young learners by giving them more time in school to support pandemic learning recovery while still protecting teachers’ half-day of collaboration time by allowing them to meet during the new world language special. But in the School Committee’s most recent communication, members wrote that in mid-January, “the School Committee Negotiations Team shared a proposal with the LEA Negotiations Team, inviting them to partner with us to develop a new plan” for using those pandemic relief funds. “We will let you know the status of these discussions,” School Committee members wrote.
Committee members added that the Elementary Scheduling Committee, which is co-facilitated by the LEA president, is developing scheduling recommendations to improve the elementary school day structure and will share draft schedules with the elementary school community for feedback over the next two months.
Prior to the budget vote, the School Committee extensively discussed the annual LPS Report on Efforts to Reduce Systemic Barriers to Equity presented on Tuesday. Among reactions to the report, Vice Chair Deepika Sawhney reflected on the importance of including teaching about genocides beyond the Western world in LPS curricula, especially as the Town and LPS student population grows more diverse.
Though Sawhney’s comments responded to a middle school unit of study related to the Holocaust, Jessica Antoline, an LHS history teacher, shared that the high school history department already teaches about multiple genocides beyond the Western world. “We teach about why Churchill’s image is painted in our LHS hallways, near Gandhi, and how that might express our lack of understanding of the ways in which the British government and its companies destroyed livelihoods in India for 200+ years,” she added.
Antoline connected the School Committee’s discussions of diversifying curricula to the ongoing contract negotiations. “If we want nuance and we want diversity in these narratives, that takes your support of us,” she said. “We feel teaching about these events matters, not because it’s a state mandate, but because we believe they matter for the community. But we can’t keep doing it without your support.”
The Select Board is scheduled to discuss and vote on approving the full Town budget, which includes both the municipal and school budgets, on Feb. 13. Town Meeting must ultimately approve the FY24 budget next month.